Category Archives: Education

A Journal of the Plague Year: #15

Famous people are sick and dying. Yesterday we learned of the passing of Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne. I love that band. He was 52 years old. That makes me sad and anxious. So, among the new coronavirus developments is this understanding that you don’t have to be old to be especially vulnerable. The CDC is asking us to wear masks in public while there is, as far as I know, still a shortage of these things for medical professionals. We’re seeing some more blatantly reckless behavior from politicians, like the governor from Georgia who apparently just learned yesterday that the virus can be carried and spread by people who are asymptomatic, causing him to shut down his state three or four weeks after almost everyone else did it. There ought to be a law against that. How many people did that stupid man endanger? According to my research, about 10 million people.

As we reach the end of the fourth teacher work day in this new reality, it’s still National Poetry Month. My workday ends by trying to write a poem. It’s interesting to me that the NaPoWriMo website has said in the first three days nothing about the pandemic. Maybe that’s intentional. Writing creatively might be a way for us to take our minds off our troubling current situation. I really did try to write a poem with today’s suggestion of using a rhyme generator for inspiration. I drafted a funny little thing after collecting about 40 different rhymes for the word “butter.” But I found myself returning to A Journal of the Plague Year and writing more poetry for the pandemic. My strategy, perhaps, is to go through rather than around. Here’s my 347th blog poem, my third offering for National Poetry Month, 2020:

#347: Distance Learning

Don’t stand so close to me.
Everything we used to do with
people we should now do with
computers. We’ve had some
practice with this. Soon we’ll
be old pros, but for now,
we’re going the distance.
It’s going to be a long road
and nobody I know has a map.
Distance makes the heart
something-something but
I’m not sure I buy it.
No exertion of the legs,
Thoreau said, could bring
two minds closer together.
He may have been wrong
about that. Maybe not.
How far could you throw
a bouquet so that your lover
could catch it? I know now
one friend who is sick.
It’s not a severe case, but
she has to stay away
from her husband and they
must communicate through
a hole in the wall like
Pyramus and Thisbe
from the play Pyramus
and Thisbe
, or A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
, if you like it.
There’s a forest in that story
so deep, the distance seems
impossible. We’re in that boat.
I know there are new metaphors
right around the corner, hiding,
the little bastards. We’ll dig
them out, learning about distance,
distance learning, and in some
distant day, I am almost certain,
we’ll be able to touch each other again.

id-distance-learning

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #14

Today, was the third day “back to work” as a Distance Learning Public School English Teacher and the second day of National Poetry Month, April, 2020. My contact with students thus far, remotely, has been minimal. Our district has given us three days to prepare the rollout of some supplemental learning resources for our students, and then (while the tech department is delivering laptop computers to families without the technology), about ten calendar days after that to roll out Distance Learning officially, where students are not just offered optional opportunities, but are expected to proceed with their high school education via the powers of the internet, lessons, assignments, and grades all delivered remotely. Today, I offered up the first enrichment, supplemental assignment (what I like to call “extra soul credit”) to my IB Seniors: visit the NaPoWriMo website, learn some stuff about poetry, write some poems, if you want to or are able, one a day for a month! I don’t know how many takers I’ll have, but I assured them that I was doing the assignment as well, so that might motivate a couple of them. It is my general philosophy to never assign my students a task that I would not be willing to do myself. And the extra soul credit is always the best kind.

So, without further ado, today’s offering:

#346: Pandemic Shopping

I’ve taken out the Honda Fit
maybe three times in as
many weeks. I did some
curbside record store
retail therapy, and I’ve done
the pandemic shopping.
A few days ago, when there
was a break in the rain,
I walked this time
up Concord Road, crossed
McLoughlin Blvd., trudged
across the Harbor Freight
and Tools parking lot into our
neighborhood Grocery Outlet,
the bargain market, the store
a friend of ours likes to call
The Used Food Place.
That’s not fair, but
I find it really funny.
They have marked
the floors of the checkout lines
with duct tape in six-foot intervals
so that customers don’t get
too close to each other.
Everywhere else in the store:
it’s a free-for all.
They make you bag your own
stuff and that’s fine.
The clerks mostly act like
it’s just another day and
that is also fine. I bought
milk, half and half, hot dogs,
buns, and a six pack of beer.
Buoy, IPA.
Walking back home, I kept
switching the hand that carried
the heavy bag so I wouldn’t
end up with arms of uneven
lengths. And maybe while
I knew that was not a likely
consequence of favoring one
arm over the other, it felt
real, and that’s good, when
you’re pandemic shopping
and nothing else does.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #12

Jesus, I wish the sun would come back out. The weather is still shitty, and it is Monday, March 30, the day we would have returned to the classroom after Spring Break had we no pandemic. Even in the early stages, the first school closure only included the five school days preceding the break and a few days after, meaning that school would have resumed on April Fool’s day. Then, only a few days into our extended break, the school closure was extended for students in Oregon until April 28. I’m curious, and I honestly don’t know: are there any states in the Union that have not shuttered their schools? Thanks to this world wide web, and according to Education Week, 47 states have closed their schools. I am still trying to wrap my head around the strangeness of these crazy days, and the enormity of it all.

Tomorrow morning at 9:00, somehow, teachers will remotely converge into some kind of google hangout meeting with our principal. I’m trying to imagine a zoom meeting with 35 to 50 people all floating around on my computer screen. Or maybe it’s just that our leaders will simply address us while we sit at home listening or watching or both; maybe they’ll let us know what the next steps are and give us some tips about how to use our 6 hour work day and how to log those hours. At any rate, we’re going back to work, one way or another, tomorrow. It does not feel that way. Unreal. Surreal.

I have intermittently in my journal of the plague year made references to the numbers, as they climb, of cases and deaths in Oregon. Often, what immediately concerns us is what immediately surrounds us, and, in our case, we’re in danger of developing a false sense of security. Our numbers are relatively low, but still alarming, but not nearly as alarming as the numbers from our neighbors to the North and to the South. Looked at globally, the numbers are terrifying. And looked at comparatively, the numbers in the United States are also terrifying. Dr. Fauci, our voice of reason in these crazy times, predicts that the death toll in the United States alone could range anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 by the time this whole thing is over, and these numbers, I understand him to be saying, could be accurate even if we do everything right from here on out.

Taking a wide view and then narrowing it down, according to The Washington Post at one o’clock this afternoon, there are 766,336 known cases and 36,873 deaths caused by COVID-19 in the entire world. In the United States, respectively, those numbers are 153,246 and 2,828. And then according to KATU, a local news outlet, in Oregon, 606 cases, 16 deaths. Numbers are insufficient to tell any kind of story here about the pain and suffering caused by this pandemic. Most of us have trouble, perhaps, seeing it as more than a pain in the ass–but thousands upon thousand of lives have been devastated by it. It is incomprehensible. It is unfathomable. I can find no way to express a suitable response. So I turn to literature. And I go way back, all the way back to the 17th century to John Donne. Meditation 17:

Who casts not up his eye to the Sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet when that breaks out? Who bends not his ear to any bell which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

Within Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, if one who is not necessarily religious can move a little bit away from all the God talk, or at least take the God talk in its broadest possible metaphorical sense, there is wisdom for the ages. To my knowledge, I don’t know personally a single soul who is ill with COVID-19 or who has died from it, but nevertheless, I feel diminished, I feel the earth is impoverished by the loss of every one of those “numbers.” The economy will one day recover, but those that are lost in this battle with coronavirus never can be recovered. So stay at home, damnit.

In closing, and back to the front, regarding teachers going back to work tomorrow without classrooms and without students, I think of this great poem by Marge Piercy, expressing for all educators this deepest hope that we can, in these the strangest of circumstances, continue “To be of use.” And it’s impossible not to think of our heroic health care workers on the front lines, “who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,/who do what has to be done, again and again.”

 

 

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #11

It’s Saturday here in Portland, Oregon. More likely than not, it’s Saturday where you are as well. I don’t have a lot to report today, except to say that we are two full weeks into our extended Spring Break. We are all healthy here. A little stir crazy. I have been behind the wheel of an automobile two times in two weeks. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the dogs have had walks at least 12 days in a row. The dogs report that they are loving the new normal. Ruby tells me that there is someone living inside the wood pile. Every time she goes out there she stands in front of it and whines, roots around with her snout at the nooks and crannies between logs and whines some more. Then she’s happy to chase balls around. Whoever they are, they’re in there good and proper, are not vulnerable to dogs in the day time.

As this is my last official weekend before work as a high school English teacher begins again, I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around a remote 6 hour work day without classrooms and students. Luckily (I think), I have been using the google technology that allows me to assign stuff, share stuff, and read stuff my students write–all in the digital realm, in real time, using the magic of the inter webs. So I really don’t have any problem imagining a world in which material is prepared, instructions given, assignments assigned, and feedback administered within this realm, without ever seeing the whites of their eyes. I don’t like it, but I can imagine it. And I can imagine how, if everything was cooking on all cylinders, and if every one of my 170 plus or minus students was playing along, I would definitely have 6 hours of work to do every day. But again, as I understand it, the material that we will be giving to students is in the spirit of “providing an opportunity.” It follows that many of them will just not take the opportunity we provide. And I’m not recording or grading? And the semester credit will be given based on what? Less than half a semester’s worth of the stuff they did before all this went down? Anyway, I have lots of questions. I am hopeful that most of them will be answered in the three days worth of preparation we have next week before the intended roll-out. I think about how in a few days I’m going to be walking into my son’s bedroom while he is knee- deep in some game play to tell him, “Hey son, stay here and go to school!” Best case scenario, I imagine, is that the Governor’s school closure until April 28th does not have to be extended. Then, at least, we would have a month with students in a physical space, in community, where we are able to see and speak to them, laugh with them, and learn.

I was dreaming about this poem last night, a playful meditation on loss by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” a villanelle, btw, if you’re interested in formal structures. And it’s a friend’s birthday today, Tracy Youngblom, a terrific poet, and I asked her if she had a poem she’d like read on the occasion, and she chose a poem called “Lilies” by Mary Oliver. So today we get two poems for no extra charge. And I was thinking about how, of the 10 poems I’ve read, 8 of them were written by dudes, so I thought it was time to get some more women up in here. I hope, wherever you are, that you are well, that you stay well, and that you enjoy these two readings. Thanks for being here. It means a lot.

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #10

Are we having fun yet? That, in case there was any confusion, is a rhetorical question. We are not having fun on this Friday of Spring Break, 2020, the year of our plague. Are we bored? Some of us are bored. You know what they say, though? Whoever “they” are, I am told that they say that boredom is good for us. Out of boredom, often comes creativity and problem solving. The state of not knowing what to do often results in things being done. The Old Guy in me says, that’s what’s wrong with kids today! They don’t know how to be bored, surrounded, as they are, by a hundred and one distractions, a thousand different ways to be entertained, all immediate, all at their grimy little finger tips! To a certain degree, this is true. Maybe it’s wrong to generalize. Maybe there’s no maybe about it. As an educator, in every year, I find that there are always a decent number of young people who are not addicted to their devices, who are super creative, and who do not have grimy finger tips. When they are bored, they read, they write, they create, or they cozy up to their boredom like a lover. I wonder how they are all doing with all of this unstructured, unvaction-y, shelter-in-place time.

Soon, I will find out. Soon I will be back in touch somewhat with my students. In recent emails from our union president and from our district superintendent, we learn that on March 31st, we are all returning to work. Sort of. Although we are told we might be able to stop in to pick up materials we need from our classrooms, we won’t be returning officially to our buildings. We will work remotely. We will attend google hangouts, we will develop some kind of remote learning opportunities for our students, we will attend IEP meetings, PD meetings, PLC meetings, meetings about other acronyms and abbreviations, and we will log in our hours, a certain number of which will be mandatory. We will roll out some remote learning program for students within three days of our “return” to work. What I find fascinating and weird and oddly intriguing about this preparation for High School Remote, is that, as I understand it, students will be held harmless for all of it, meaning that none of the work they might do as a result of instruction and assignments given will be graded, recorded, or figured into a final mark for the semester. Part of me thinks, a ha! Here’s an opportunity for an experiment in an educational fantasy I have harbored throughout my career: the grade-less classroom! Another part of me is doubtful that students, out of desperation with their boredom, will flock to The Google to continue getting an education, you know, for its own sake. One can hope. One can only hope that they are THAT bored.

The dog is bored. She keeps bringing me her soggy, slobbery tennis ball to throw. And while we’re on the subject, today’s poem, happily, is about boredom. One of my favorite poems of all time, so much so, that I don’t need my reading glasses for it–because I have it committed to memory! John Berryman, #14 from the Dreamsongs.

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #9

Just a few observations today in no particular order, or, rather, more accurately, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  • War of the Worlds seems to be our binge-show of choice at the moment. There’s nothing like a great end-of-the-world story to get you through a pandemic.
  • In related news: my son and I are considering the purchase of the tenth season of The Walking Dead. It has been a thing of ours for years, ever since the day, when he was way too young, that I discovered he was secretly watching it on the iPad. Terribly aggrieved, I made a deal with him that watching with Dad was the only way he could continue with this deranged and terribly violent show.
  • Yesterday’s outing was successful. I pulled up curbside to Music Millennium, my favorite independent record store, called inside, and a blue-rubber-gloved young clerk come outside with my vinyl order: a 200 gram, remastered “25 O’clock,” the new Boomtown Rats album (the first in 37 years!), and a collaboration between The Flaming Lips and Deap Vally: Deap Lips, of course. The spelling is theirs, in case you were wondering. Music Millennium is closed to in-store customers. On-line and curbside sales only. If you have a favorite business operating this way, and you are able, try to help them out.
  • The liquor and grocery store excursion seemed like any other liquor and grocery store excursion, except that I could tell people were being conscientious about distance. But is it possible in these situations to remain six feet away from every human being? I don’t think it is. If I wanted to, I could have reached out and touched someone on a number of occasions. You will be happy to know that I did not do this, however. Some were wearing gloves. A few were wearing masks. Was it less busy than usual? Maybe. The most striking difference was in the drive. The traffic was light, but not alarmingly. But there were so many businesses hanging signs that said “CLOSED.” Cafes, restaurants, small shops everywhere, closed.
  • The number of infected people in Oregon has nearly tripled since the last time I mentioned it. So has the number of deaths. 266 and 10, respectively.
  • A letter from our principal, my boss, arrived in yesterday’s email box. Beyond the joke about his attempt at homeschooling resulting in the near suspension and expulsion of his own kids, the news about next steps is still fuzzy, except for the fact that we may be called into work on the 30th or the 31st. I’m interested to know what we might do for an entire month before students are slated to return. He makes a plea for flexibility, a guarantee that our “roles will look different,” that we “may be asked to do things that are not in our job description,” whatever that means. “We are in uncharted territory.” Ain’t that the truth. Some movement is afoot, it seems, and that’s a bit of a comfort. Kind of.
  • The rhythm of our days has taken a dramatic shift. We stay up until midnight or 1 a.m., sleep until 9. Outside of a zoom conference call here and there, our schedules are wide open, but there have been a number of things consistently happening in the lives of the adults in the house. Chores. Meditating. Reading. Blogging. Drumming. News-binging. Social media-binging. Poetry-recording. Drum video-watching. Music listening. Meal-preparing and eating. Finally, evening movie or show-watching. The resident teenager seems to be engaged in a fewer number of activities, but engaged nevertheless. Video-gaming. Snacking. Drumming. Believe me, we’ve tried to get him outside. When the weather was good we played badminton for a half an hour. Now that the weather is shitty, getting him to come out of his room is a dicey proposition. Sometimes a meal will coax him out, or more snacks, or a grilled cheese sandwich. To be fair, he’s done some reading. He culled through some of his old toys. And he took a shower. Singular.
  • I decided that I cannot live with yesterday’s reading of “The World Is Too Much With Us,” so if you go back to yesterday’s entry, you might notice a second video, a revised performance of Wordsworth’s sonnet–after the original. It might be instructive or interesting to compare them, because I think, a wrong word was not the only thing that made me unhappy. You’re free to skip it, of course, if you like. I recorded it mostly for myself–and my friend Tracy. It turns out to have some surprises, this new performance–and a new error! The omission of the word “And” in line 7! Aaarrghhh.
  • As for today’s poetry reading: it will be, dear reader, viewer, listener, a commitment. It clocks in at about 10 minutes, baby. Almost everything I predicted about rereading the great “Tintern Abbey” poem was borne out through experience: the rereading, the weeping, the decision to record a sonnet instead. But then, I got a bug. Emboldened by the whiskey, perhaps, I recorded “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” which is not even the full title, by the way, and miraculously, I got all the way through it in one take. I don’t think I substituted “coming” for “rising” once in the entire thing. I could be wrong about that. No matter. This poem, as much, no, more so than Wordsworth’s sonnet, is a much-needed tonic. It was then, it is now, and it will be for all time a poem with immense super powers. I hope my reading of it does it justice, even a little bit.
  • Final observation on “Tintern Abbey.” In the last section of the poem, Wordsworth directly addresses his sister. When I read it, and I got to that word “Sister,” I thought of her as a representative of all the women who have made such momentous impact on my life–and I felt like I was speaking to them, or to each one of them, individually. Some serious magical mojo going on there.

 

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #4

It’s only been four days, but I miss my students, I miss my student teacher, I miss my colleagues, and I miss that building, oddly enough, perhaps, the most constant and stable thing in my adult life, my school and my classroom like another home. Meanwhile, the sun shines, the dogs get another long walk. Another beautiful day on which to ponder this darkness.

Every once in a while, in my professional capacity, I get riled up about something. On Wednesday, March 11, a single day before we learned schools would be closed, I attended a morning staff meeting that irked me to such a degree that I did the thing I usually do in such circumstances: I began an open letter in order to air my grievances. I was committed and passionate and insistent about all the things that went (as I perceived them) wrong during that particular staff meeting. I had decided to share it with my bosses. I spent hours on this thing. And almost immediately after learning that schools would be shut down, my indignation totally deflated.

If nothing else, in these strange times, incomparable for me to anything in my entire experience on the planet, we tend to winnow through stuff that concerns us to find what we hold most dear, find most important and life-giving, and let the rest fall away like chaff. Maybe someday, that indignant feeling about bad staff meetings in an otherwise idyllic working environment (outside of the intense difficulty of the job) will bubble back up, and I may have an opportunity and an obligation to speak. But right now, all I want to do is read, write, make music, love my family, do the odd thing that needs doing around the house and yard, walk the dogs, ride the bike, and recite poetry.

I seem to be gravitating toward my all time favorite poems, as one does. This one: the first Mary Oliver poem I ever heard and the one I come back to over and over, “Wild Geese.”

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